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Bishop expresses concern for freedom of conscience

By Sarah Mac Donald - 18 June, 2014

Bishop Brendan Leahy (pic courtesy Robert Samson)

Bishop Brendan Leahy (pic courtesy Robert Samson)

The State must respect freedom of conscience, the Bishop of Limerick, Dr Brendan Leahy, said in an address on religious freedom delivered in Limerick last night.

He warned that religious freedom and conscience were being “effectively” marginalised from the public square by “tendencies that would interpret religious freedom in a narrow sense.”

The Bishop of Limerick warned against “emptying religious freedom of any meaningful content” in the name of “tolerance or equality”.

He urged religious believers to speak up.

“In the contemporary socio-cultural climate, when a vision of life inspired by faith can subtly but effectively be deemed not PC, it is important for us to recognise the public role of religion and not be afraid to speak up,” he said.

In his talk, ‘The Meaning of Religious Freedom’, which was sponsored by the Iona Institute and the Irish Catholic newspaper, Bishop Leahy warned the Irish State that it must respect freedom of conscience, and underlined that freedom of conscience is a fundamental human right.

Referring to last year’s abortion debate, he repeated the hierarchy’s call for the State to “respect the conscience of its citizens, including its public representatives, on such an important human value as the right to life.”

He warned, “It is ethically unacceptable to expect doctors, nurses and others who have conscientious objections to nominate others to take their place. Neither should any institution with a pro-life ethos be forced to provide abortion services”.

The provisions of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act requires those who opt out of an abortion on grounds of conscientious objection to nominate another member of staff to take their place.

It also requires Catholic hospitals such as St Vincent’s and the Mater Hospital in Dublin to perform abortions under the terms of the law.

Elsewhere in his address, he defended the right of parents to have their children educated in the faith, saying parents “must be free to transmit to their children, responsibly and without constraints, their heritage of faith, values and culture.”

The leader of the church in Limerick said Europe struggles with the issue of religious freedom.

He noted that that religious freedom in some states risks being reduced merely to freedom of worship without guaranteeing respect for freedom of conscience or the recognition of the public dimension of religious belief.

“In promoting pluralism we need to be careful not to fall into the trap, in the name of tolerance or equality, of emptying religious freedom of any meaningful content and bleaching Ireland of the valuable contribution of religious traditions and perspectives,” Bishop Leahy said.

He said religious education can offer much to the building of a strong and fraternal social fabric.

Bishop Leahy reiterated Archbishop Diarmuid Martin’s warning on Saturday that Catholics should not be intimidated because they defend the value of the family.

“It is important to promote it positively also in its role as an agent of the transmission of religious values,” Bishop Leahy said.

Referencing Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, the Bishop said the sense of the Declaration is that freedom of religion has two dimensions.

It is both a positive freedom for religion, e.g. the freedom to practice, manifest and share one’s religious commitments, and a negative freedom from religious coercion.

Conscience is not just a private matter. Given the social nature of human beings, conscience can and must necessarily be expressed in a communitarian form and so the government has also to take care in how it promotes freedom of conscience also in the public sphere, he said.

Citing Bunreacht na hÉireann, the Constitution of Ireland, he said Article 44 affirms the right of religious freedom.

“In recent years, however, social and cultural changes have brought us to a new place in Ireland. We now have many migrants with their varied religious traditions living among us. There are an increasing number of people who declare they have no explicit religious affiliation. The shocking revelations of horrible deeds of the past carried out by individuals and bodies that profess religious values have bewildered many.”

“Because of the baggage that comes from memories of schooling or the socio-cultural context of their upbringing, a number of people today not only reject affiliation of a religious body but also react against the public role of religion. I don’t want to judge them in their personal decisions. Indeed, it is an expression of their religious freedom,” he commented.

“But, in a backlash against the sins of the past of the Church there is a risk that we might end up interpreting in a reductive manner what are actually very fine provisions for religious freedom in our Constitution.”

“The foundational text of our state promotes a facilitative form of religious freedom. For instance, it affirms that the state shall provide “for” education and then allows for Catholics, Anglicans, Jews, Muslims, people of non-religious conviction to establish schools.”

“We can be grateful for the positive constitutional arrangement that affirms that schools must support the moral, spiritual and religious development of children.”

“In promoting pluralism we need to be careful not to fall into the trap, in the name of tolerance or equality, of emptying religious freedom of any meaningful content and bleaching Ireland of the valuable contribution of religious traditions and perspectives.”

He said it is clear that Irish people need to be in dialogue with one another concerning the various rights that need to be balanced.

But we need to avoid tendencies that would interpret religious freedom in a narrow reductive sense that effectively marginalises religious freedom and religion from the public square.

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